With Apartment Hunting Moving Online During Pandemic, Scam Listings Increase

Real estate professionals and the Massachusetts attorney general tell NBC10 Boston an apartment leasing scam is on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic because digital thieves are taking advantage of prospective tenants who do not see a unit in person

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The trend of people relying on online photos and videos to hunt for apartments during the pandemic is creating some attractive real estate for digital thieves.

That’s according to the Massachusetts Attorney General and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, who tell the NBC10 Investigators they are warning the public about how to avoid falling victim to it.

Dino Confalone, a realtor with Sotheby’s International Realty, has recently experienced the scam with a beach cottage he is selling on Allerton Street in Quincy.

On several occasions, Confalone said people have shown up at the property to inquire about an online listing advertising the home for rent.

“It’s definitely becoming a little sketchy,” he said.

Dino Confalone outside his listing in Quincy

Confalone can thank scammers for poaching his professional photos and video and then creating a fake rental ad for $900 per month. The ruse succeeds when prospective tenants wire money for a security deposit and first month’s rent to the person they think is the landlord.

“The price piques their interest and people think, ‘Oh my God, I have to jump on this right away,’” Confalone explained. “When they show up, they can see my name on the sign and thankfully give me a call before they wire any funds.”

Millions of Americans are unsure about their financial futures amid the coronavirus pandemic. And with stalled talks on Capitol Hill over a second stimulus relief package, the Federal Trade Commission is warning of scammers trying to take advantage of people.

Justin Maloney knows the details of the scam all too well.

In May, Maloney was among the residents displaced by an electrical fire at a Somerville home. After searching, he thought he’d discovered a perfect short-term option: a studio listed at $800 per month is Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.

“It was almost too good to be true because it basically was,” Maloney said. “I was desperate and I jumped on it and let my guard down.”

After sending an application and having several email exchanges, Maloney was ready to secure the apartment. The “landlord” had used COVID-19 as a reason why the unit could not be seen in person prior to the move-in date.

Maloney sent $1,300 via the Zelle online payment platform and showed up at Hereford Street in June with a pickup truck full of possessions. He called the number and spoke with someone who said he was running late to exchange the keys. The next time Maloney called, the number had been disconnected.

“It was awful,” he said about losing the money. “It was hard to believe because I’d never been the victim of a scam like that.”

New data shows a huge spike in coronavirus-related rip-offs, scam and fraud. Consumer Reports shares tips on how to spot them.

Maloney is not alone. Attorney General Maura Healey told NBC10 Boston her office has been hearing more consumer stories like that since the coronavirus outbreak. She compared the problem to the potential perils of online dating.

“If you go onto an online dating site and you see someone and then it turns out not to be the person at all who was advertised, that’s what we’re seeing happen in this apartment rental space,” Healey said.

Healey and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board offered these tips to avoid falling victim:

  • Thorough inspection: Whenever possible, inspect an apartment carefully before signing a lease or paying a deposit.
  • Use a broker: If you must rent an apartment unseen, don’t trust online advertisements — online apartment listings are just too easy to fake. Instead, use a licensed real estate broker or salesperson. You can verify a broker’s license online here.
  • Watch for red flags: Keep an eye out for red flags such as poorly written ads, deals that are too good to be true, and requests for payment using untraceable methods.
  • Only make secure payments: Never send a wire transfer, cashier’s check, or funds transfer to someone you’ve only met online. If they turn out to be a scammer, you won’t be able to get your money back.
  • Protect your personal information: Don’t disclose your SSN or PayPal information to someone you’ve only met online. Meet your landlord in person before agreeing to a background check or ask the landlord to have the background check performed by a licensed real estate broker or salesperson.
  • File a complaint: If you are the victim of an online apartment listing scam, file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center at
  • Report fraudulent ads: If you’re the owner of a property, realtor or property manager and find that someone else has altered your listing or listed your property for rent, report the fraudulent ad to the website’s point of contact for abuse immediately. 

Even though the scam has been around for years, the combination of the pandemic and a more sophisticated level of communication from digital thieves has made it tougher to immediately detect.

Still, Maloney looks back and said there are red flags he missed.

“I guess I’d say trust your gut,” he said. “If something doesn’t feel right, you should probably look elsewhere.”

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